John le Carré’s spies are a stiff lot. While James Bond gets a workout on the streets and in the sack, Le Carré’s protagonists punch painfully slow clocks, snap photos, weed through documents and analyze the dead eyes of adversaries over bottomless cups of tea.
Jonathan Pine is no exception. In “The Night Manager,” a small-screen version of the 1993 novel, our hero patiently tracks an arms dealer across the globe over the course of three years without ever getting to strap on a bagpipe that doubles as a flamethrower.
If that sounds about as exciting as an audit, you’ve probably never seen “Smiley’s People,” in which a post-“Star Wars” Alec Guinness relies on a subtler set of Jedi mind tricks to outfox a Soviet intelligence officer. The 1982 Le Carré adaptation remains one of the most critically acclaimed miniseries of all time.
When “The Night Manager” hit bookstores, Hugh Laurie was immediately convinced of its potential as a worthy successor.
“I was three chapters in, and I tried to option it,” said the actor, best known to American audiences for “House,” a role that earned him six Emmy nominations. “I have never optioned anything in my life before or since, but that’s how compelling, how romantic and how powerful I found this story to be.”
Laurie lost out on the bidding war 25 years ago, although an actual screen adaptation didn’t materialize — until now.
In fact, “The Night Manager” is the first Le Carré story to make it to television in two years, a shocker considering how well his methodical, complex characters fit into a cable neighborhood that readily welcomes mobsters seeking therapy and high school teachers who sell meth for extra credit.
“Le Carré started his career in the early ’60s, when TV and film still had clear-cut heroes,” said executive producer Stephen Garrett. “But today’s best TV shows and movies are all about morally ambiguous characters that do some quite bad things for, arguably, good ends. Le Carré was ahead of the game in understanding that good and bad are kind of banal.”
‘Given way to the dark side’
Laurie may have become too old to play Pine, but he was the perfect choice to play the story’s prime villain, Richard Roper, an international businessman with a ruthless streak who makes Gregory House look like Marcus Welby.
“I think there’s a Colonel Kurtz aspect to it,” said Laurie, referring to Marlon Brando’s mad dictator in “Apocalypse Now.” “He has surrounded himself with people whose livelihoods depend on his good opinion. It’s not good for one’s sanity, to be able to operate unopposed. He has given way to the dark side in a very, very big way.”
The role of Pine fell to Tom Hiddleston, who tapped his inner demons as Loki in the “Thor” movies and Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light,” now in theaters. Pine may be his most daunting challenge to date, a concierge whose rage has been building after too many requests for club sandwiches in the middle of the night. The death of a guest he clumsily tried to save doesn’t help.
In an early, pivotal, scene in the six-part series, Pine steals from his employer and allows himself to get beaten nearly to death by his own team, just to create a crack in the door of Roper’s inner sanctum.
At the same time, our hero won’t be mistaken for a Norse god anytime soon. After one seemingly benign conversation with Roper, he rushes to the bathroom to throw up.
Director Susanne Bier, whose “In a Better World” won an Oscar for best foreign film, encourages the up-and-comer to embrace Le Carré’s description of Pine as a “self-exiled creature of the night and a sailor without a destination.”
“She always encouraged me to lean into the tension between his obligation to be very, very calm and passive on the surface, while he’s actually on fire beneath that,” Hiddleston said. “That tension I enjoyed playing very much.”
Cat-and-mouse game at heart
Some liberties have been taken. Le Carre, who makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo in episode four, signed off on moving the location from South America to Europe, allowing for one scene to play out in the shadow of the Matterhorn. He also agreed to having the role of Pine’s handler, Angela Burr, be taken over a woman, Olivia Colman, whose real-life pregnancy makes a nice visual contrast to her character’s lack of motherly instincts toward the operative she is all too happy to leave twisting in the wind.
What remains is the heart of the matter: A cat-and-mouse game in which the “The Pounce” moves in slow motion — and in both directions.
“The world has changed radically. The players have changed. The technology has changed,” said executive producer Stephen Cornwell, who knows a bit about Le Carre’s world; he’s his son.
“I guess one of the sad things is that the moral questions, the ambiguity, is still very much there, and so I think it is a mixture of things that have changed and things that are, unfortunately, still the same.”
“The Night Manager” was so well received in England, where it aired this year, that it launched an unofficial campaign to anoint Hiddleston as the next Bond.
Sounds smashing — as long as the new incarnation of 007 carries a license to chill.
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin